Trusting the Authority of Scripture Is Not “Knowledge” (?)

Many Catholic apologists make the argument that the Protestant reliance upon Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith (sola Scriptura) is defective because it implies a previous reliance upon the authority of the Catholic Church as the “publisher” and Christ-delegated interpreter of Scripture.

From the moment I first encountered this argument, it seemed philosophically suspicious to me. The first question suggested to me by the argument is, “Why don’t we need another authority standing behind the Catholic Church to guaranteed its authority so that we can then trust its judgments about Scripture?” Which immediately suggests the further question, “Why don’t we need a fourth authority to guarantee the third authority that guarantees the authority of the Catholic Church which then guarantees the authority of Scripture?” And so forth. Thus, this Catholic argument has always seemed philosophically suspicious to me because it looked like an epistemological variation on the classical philosophical ontological argument that no infinite regress of causes can exist.

Aristotelian metaphysics (according to my limited understanding of it) holds that a real infinite regress of ontological causes cannot exist. The reasoning in Aristotle’s works gets pretty complicated, and I’m not going to try to summarize it except like this: human reason as an activity of the mind engaging the world is in a certain sense the search for causes, and an infinite regress ultimately results in no graspable cause since every postulated cause has a previous cause, ad infinitum. This would ultimately imply the destruction of human reason itself as a viable tool for understanding the world. Applying this ontological argument to epistemology, then, seems to me to yield the conclusion that an epistemological infinite regress would likewise result in no graspable cause of knowledge, and so in this way would destroy human reason itself as a viable tool for understanding the world.

Well, certain Catholics that I know claim that my whole argument about this subject is hokum, and that I not only don’t understand what Aristotle is saying but that I also am guilty of just blowing smoke in a kind of “studied ignorance” that really makes Aristotle say the exact opposite of what he actually says. They respond to my epistemological infinite regress argument in order to try to save their “You have to trust the Catholic Church’s infallible authority in order to be able to trust the authority of Scripture” argument. To me, not being an expert in Aristotelian metaphysics (I am much better with his ethics and politics), their response gets as complicated as Aristotle’s original text, but here is how I understand their claims:

The basic Aristotelian theory of knowledge holds that nothing exists in the intellect except it first impinges on the physical senses. There are no such thing as “innate ideas,” ideas that the human mind is born knowing and which it uses to interpret the world of experience. Rather, the human mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate), awaiting impressions from the senses so that the reason can then abstract the universal essences of particular singular things in the world of experience. The mind thus only “knows” universal essences, not particular singular things.

Now Holy Scripture is a book, and as such it contains and transmits ideas. Ideas are not things that impinge upon the physical senses, and so strictly speaking, the mind cannot “know” the things that Scripture teaches (knowing being a precise technical term). This being the case, what one does when one trusts in the authority of Scripture is simply belief. It is in no way knowledge. Beliefs can be wrong; knowledge, by definition, can never be wrong. One may certainly have a true belief (a belief that conforms to empirical reality) or a false belief (a belief that does not conform to empirical reality), but one can never have “true knowledge” or “false knowledge.” Those categories would be as absurd as “married bachelor” or “square circle,” because by definition knowledge simply is the mind’s conformity to empirical reality.

As a belief and not knowledge, then one’s trust in the authority of Scripture as God’s revelation could be wrong and it must be subjected to the test of knowledge coming to the mind via empirical sense data. Now living people and their direct activities do impact one’s senses continually, and from these sensory impacts real knowledge, not just possibly true belief, can arise. Furthermore, an “authority” is a source that knows, not a source that believes. If it did not know what it was talking about, then what it was talking about could possibly be false, and this would not do any good for someone wishing to trust in its judgments. For these reasons, this Catholic argument seems to be saying, only living people can properly be called “authorities.” A book, even a (purportedly) Divine Book such as Holy Scripture, cannot be an “authority” because it conveys no “knowledge,” but only “belief.”

Now, assuming that I’ve summarized this Catholic argument correctly, here’s where they claim the rubber meets the road for the Protestant. The Protestant, they assume, is nothing more than an isolated private individual person – an individual who eschews all objective connections to the external world by setting his own subjective mind up as its own self-contained, self-justifying source of information about and interpretation of the world. Because he is an isolated mind communing only with his own subjective impressions and eschewing all correcting factors outside of his own mind, he lacks what might be called “objective indicia” (criteria) for rooting his beliefs about God in the actual empirical world of human experience.

Consequently, the Protestant’s trust that the Holy Scriptures are God’s revelation and are thus fully authoritative for man’s religious life is a purely rootless and subjective belief. His trust is not knowledge in any sense of the word, for it is divorced from the only actual source of knowledge – extramental physical sensory experience, most particularly of living people external to himself who can function as said “objective indicia” for rooting his faith in reality. The Protestant is thus left in the unenviable position of being a rank fideist. Like the Mormon who reifies his subjective experience of the “burning in the bosom” as the ultimate test for the truth of his faith, or perhaps even like a Muslim who simply chooses to believe that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet, the Protestant simply unthinkingly clings to a book whose identity, contents, and proper interpretation he can never establish with certainty (i.e., the state of knowledge rather than mere subjective and possibly false belief). All he has – and indeed, all he can ever have – is his own opinion / belief about Scripture’s identity, contents, and interpretation. In short, all he has – and indeed, all he can ever have – is his own rootless and unverifiable “private judgment” about these things. And that, says the Catholic, is an absolutely unworthy foundation for something as high and holy as the Christian religion.

By contrast, this Catholic argument seems to continue, the Catholic individual does have objective indicia for rooting his faith in extramental and empirical reality. He has objective indicia in the real living persons who make up the Magisterium of the Church. These persons, because they are empirically living and empirically acting individuals can and do provide real knowledge that can and does connect the individual person’s (mere) trust in the veracity of Scripture to the extramental empirical world. The Catholic thus eschews “private judgment” and instead submits his own endless capacity for generating mere ungrounded belief to an extramental and empirically verifiable living entity that really and truly knows what it is talking about. This is the authority known as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Thus, the individual Catholic is not “on his own” like the Protestant (allegedly) is; the individual Catholic can have his beliefs corrected by the Magisterium, and thus, at least in a kind of derivative sense, the individual Catholic can have real knowledge.

This is, at any rate, what I take my Catholic detractors to be saying. I’m not entirely sure I’ve represented the chain of their reasoning correctly. For one thing, I’m not sure if they are actually claiming that the Catholic Church has knowledge of God and His revelation, let alone that they as individual Catholics have a knowledge derivative in a sense from the Magisterium. I’m not clear about this because they go on to call themselves Thomists, and according to my limited understanding of Thomist epistemology, there cannot be in the same human mind knowledge of an object of faith. To have knowledge of something means that you cannot have faith concerning it, and vice versa. Objects of faith are not sensory, and since knowledge can only come through the senses, there cannot be knowledge about matters of faith. How then these Catholics would ultimately be in a better position than they say I as a Protestant am in, I am not sure.

At any rate, since they like to rail against me as someone who just blows smoke, I figure that by putting up what I hope presents itself as a serious attempt to understand their argument, some sort of progress in the dispute might eventually occur. I’ll wait a bit to see if any of them bite by weighing in on this post, and then perhaps I’ll say some more.

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59 Responses to Trusting the Authority of Scripture Is Not “Knowledge” (?)

  1. Steve P. says:

    You are mixing up two different senses of the term “authority.” When you call the bible your ultimate “authority” you are only saying that God is your ultimate authority and that He is the Divine author of scripture. Roman Catholics (and presumably your “Catholic apologist” opponents) also believe that and so also believe that the bible is their “ultimate authority,” they simply would not be likely to use the word “authority” in that sense, if for no other reason than it would encourage confusion along the lines of “hey, if the bible is my authority but I need a different authority, the Church, standing behind it, why doesn’t the Church need a third authority standing behind it etc. ad infinitum…”

    When you call the Church an authority, on the other hand, you are probably saying something to the effect that Christ delegates his Bride to teach with all of His authority, and (among other things) to settle disagreements between His disciples who, although in agreement that the Bible is their “ultimate authority” in your other sense of the term, still disagree on many vital questions of doctrine, disagree, one might say, on their “interpretation of scripture.”

    So while I think you may have the germ of a good idea with your “infinite regress” argument, you need to start over with a definite idea what you mean by “authority,” which is unlikely to be a term that you can apply in the same sense to both scripture and the church, two very different sorts of entities.

  2. Steve P. says:

    Or to put it another way: Protestants and Catholics agree that scripture is the inerrant word of God–they both have the bible–yet the Protestants remain Protestants and the Catholics remain Catholic so it doesn’t seem to be working for them, does it? Apparently they need something or someone else, something we might call an “authority,” to resolve their differences.

  3. As putting myself in Catholic shoes, I would almost wonder if they consider the scriptures as having two causes: the Holy Spirit and the Church, in perfect union like the incarnation of Christ (it is after all His body). Further, Christ is the cause of the Church, since on Pentecost He founded her. Thus, to borrow from Aristotle, we have reached the unmoved mover as both primary and secondary cause of the scriptures. There is therefore no infinite regress of causes. It would seem to me that this is a much stronger version of the argument.

    Further, I think the argument that the scriptures defined as a book that contain ideas is a fairly modern interpretation. First, (hat tip to McLuhan) the scriptures (plural) did not arrive in their current form (a book; singular) until roughly just before the Reformation. In the various Eastern communions (EO, OO, Assyrian) the scriptures are still used liturgically in separate forms (a Gospel book, a Psalter, an OT, an Apostole [epistles], etc) reflecting the fact that the scriptures are, in fact, several books, written by several authors in multiple genres. The unity or cohesiveness of the scriptures are demonstrated in the fact that they are read together at the divine services. To put it perhaps a bit too simply: the proper context for the scriptures is the Church, and in particular, the Mass. Put another way: How do we know that the scriptures are in fact ‘one’? Because they are: read together, exigeted together (through preaching) and they share a common hermeneutic, namely the Eucharistic and Baptismal canon.

    Second, when understood in this context, the scriptures become much less about ideas and more about Christ. In fact they function in a sacramental way of sorts. Is it important to understand the scriptures? Yes. But it is more important to hear them and do them. Thus, for St. Anthony the Great, when he hears the words “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” he goes and does what they command. He doesn’t stop to analyze the typology of poverty in the OT and discover Christ as the fulfilment of that type (a worthy study if ever there was one!).

    Third, since the context of the scriptures is the Church, we know the scriptures in physical senses. We hear the words “this is my body.” We see the cross depicted in church art. We taste the Eucharist. We smell the incense. We touch ourselves with the sign of the cross. Everything we perceive exegetes Christ.

    Of course, much (if not all) of this could be professed by Protestants, with varying definitions of “Church.” However, I am strongly suspect that the scriptures can offer any sort of external, objective authority for the Church. An internal authority, certainly, if not *the* internal authority.

  4. Nathan says:

    I am neither Thomist nor RC, however I do spot some epistemic difficulties. First, the scriptures to be understood must be read and apprehended. That apprehension is itself the most basic form of interpretation. Now, in summary (I can explain in more detail if you desire), interpretation is a subset of tradition. So you are either inventing your own interpretation (tradition) or following an existing one. Consequently, there must be an authoritative interpretation or else we must reject the idea of an authoritative interpretation (and accept some form of subjectivism).

    Another problem I think is more a failure of the imagination, but it leads to a multiplicity of epistemologies. Imagine yourself as an ordinary Israelite being led by Moses – no written revelation available. Alternately, imagine yourself as an ordinary Christian in 40 AD – no written New Testament. Or, imagine yourself to be an illiterate Christian in an isolated Church community in the early second century and your congregation has only a handful of apostolic letters – nothing approaching a complete bible. Now, if you can envision an epistemology that is consistent both for today and for all of those historic scenarios (and I could postulate many more), you will be getting somewhere.

  5. Laura K says:

    The Catholic would (and does) say that God, as First Cause, explicitly caused the Church. The proof of this we have in Scripture, the result of this we have in Scripture. Since God caused the Church to be, Catholics have faith in God’s provision which includes the gifts of both authority *and* scripture. The trust, really, is more in the cathedra than the particular man occupying it.

    Further, the whole argument that a Catholic is mindlessly dependent on the Magisterium and the Protestant is “on his own” is an apologetic (and artificial) dichotomy that just doesn’t exist in the wild. The (good) Catholic is hardly mindless (fideist), and the (good) Protestant is hardly “on his own.” And vice versa, the mindless (fideist) Protestant and the rationalist (gnostic) Catholic are likewise only caricatures.

    I think it’s a mistake to make knowledge and faith exclusive of each other. St. Thomas did say one could have knowledge of God (as well as faith in God) (will look up chapter and verse later if you need it), so God would be both an object of faith and knowledge. The knowledge of God is a sacramental knowledge that comes empirically (and not just intellectually). St. Anselm and St. Augustine speak of a “faith seeking understanding.” I thought it was Luther who believed man was so corrupt that he could not use natural reason to come to know God.

  6. Kevin Davis says:

    Very good. I think you have it right. For J. H. Newman, the alternatives are knowledge (for the Catholic) and opinion (for the Protestant), while faith is knowledge, not opinion. For Newman, the only difference between secular knowledge and religious knowledge is the source — the latter comes from God through special revelation.

    Also of interest, Newman argues that we require the testimony of others in order to accumulate the knowledge necessary to know the created world; likewise, we require the testimony of others in order to know God’s revelation, which has its origin in empirical reality (e.g., Jesus literally rose from the grave and commissioned the Church; God literally spoke to Abraham, et cetera). However, unlike knowledge of the created world, the empirical reality of God’s special revelation is no longer available to us (i.e., Jesus ain’t here, and we don’t have a video recording of the Resurrection, or the Exodus of Israel, et cetera). Thus, this empirical revelation must continue by empirical means (through an infallible Church) in order to remain as knowledge, not opinion. Hence, Newman believed that Protestants were not capable of faith, only opinion — faith is knowledge. Once the empirical line is broken, faith becomes opinion and no longer faith.

  7. Tim Enloe says:

    These are some provocative (in a helpful way) comments; thanks to everyone so far. I should have ended the post by saying that if I’m representing these Catholics’ argument correctly, then from their point of view there is no infinite regress of epistemological authority since, as one of them puts it, “knowledge terminates on the senses” in terms of the living people of the Magisterium being the actual “buck stops here” explanation of the knowledge-that-is-faith.

    I can see how that makes sense to them, and why they’d be frustrated by my seeming obtuseness in insisting that their position does entail an infinite regress. But two big problems for me about these particular Catholics remain. One is that their understanding of what Protestantism is actually like “on the ground” is simply defective. As Laura K. put it, it’s simply a caricature to say that Protestants are literally left “on their own,” having no authority whatsoever except what is between their ears. Granted, some – perhaps even many – Protestants do talk this way, most often when they haven’t stopped to think reflectively about what Berean-like “private judgment” actually means. But people are often practically inconsistent with their intellectual positions, and no matter what massive confusions may exist among Protestants regarding the theory of “private judgment,” most Protestants “on the ground” actually do recognize many authorities outside of their own personal minds.

    Most Protestants continue, for instance, to meet together in corporate bodies (churches) to do corporate things (singing, preaching, administration of the sacraments / ordinances) which they all take to be publicly binding things. Most Protestants don’t split their churches over private disagreements with their pastors. And so forth. On this point, the usual Catholic apologetics line is simply a caricature, based on isolating extreme examples and making out that those are really the norm.

    A second big problem I have is that they essentially end up simply begging the question at issue between Catholicism and Protestantism regarding the term “the Church” and its external operations as “objective indicia” of faith. I had a discussion already with one of the main guys who pushes all this, and the end result of that was that he admitted he had no answer for what I said about the actual existence of “objective indicia” in Protestant circles.

    So the issues are by no means as clear-cut as guys like that think. Mostly it’s a lot of begged questions, and these result in abortive – and usually unnecessarily polemical – discussions where nobody really learns anything or moves any closer to wisdom than they were before. Some of these guys actually write thousands and thousands of words justifying their view and their caricatures of Protestantism only to at last end it all by saying something like, “Everything you have said in response to me doesn’t make a whit of difference. Catholicism is what makes sense to me, and that’s just that.” So all the time and energy was spent not on seeking wisdom, but on autobiographical justifications of where one already is. And that is what frustrates me.

    Steve P., I want to take up your reiteration of the possibility that I’m ambiguous about the word “authority,” but I can’t do that at this moment. Please don’t think I’m ignoring your point.

  8. You are right to identify a regress problem with the arguments as they are sometimes put.

    In fact, there are three separate Catholic apologetic arguments, each of which invites a regress argument like yours, but each of which can escape it in a different way.

    1. The Canonicity Argument. This is as follows: To figure out which if any of the millions of books written are divinely inspired, we need an authority beyond the books themselves. (One way of formulating this is in terms of the question of the choice of canon.) This invites the regress that to figure out which if any of the billions of authorities (for in some sense, each person and organization claims to be an authority) is properly guided by God we need another authority, and so on.

    One way to reformulate the Canonicity Argument to escape the criticism is this. We ask how in fact we all, Catholics and Protestants, have decided which NT books (the OT case is more complex, being bound up with Jewish understandings of the canon as well) are authoritative Scripture? The answer is that the Church decided for us, and we all have accepted this judgment of the Church. Therefore, in this regard, we all de facto accept the authority of the Church. However, the argument continues, it is inconsistent to accept the authority of the Church in this crucial matter, without accepting it in others. This formulation of the Canonicity Argument escapes the regress criticism, because it does not make the general claim that we always need another authority to decide what is authoritative, but only the specific claim that the way we decided in THIS case was by following the Church’s tradition.

    2. The Authority Argument. This argument doesn’t ask about the canon, but picks up a Bible with a shorter (i.e., Protestant canon) and asks simply: How do we know these texts are authoritative? Surely, we need an authority to tell us so. And of course we can ask the same question about how we know that the alleged authority is authoritative, and your regress goes on its merry way.

    A good way to reformulate the argument is this. Don’t formulate some general principle that we need a further authority to tell us that something or someone is authoritative. That general principle leads to regress or circularity, obviously. Instead, go as follows: Catholics and Protestants agree that we have good reason to accept the authority of Scripture. What is that good reason?

    In the case of some individuals, there may be a religious experience tied to a Bible. Maybe an individual is holding the Bible, and God inspires the individual to think that everything in that book is God’s word. While that may happen for some Christians, it probably doesn’t happen to all. Of course, some people may accept the testimony of those who claim to have had such a religious experience, but then we have to worry about the Mormons who came to our door and claimed to have had such an experience in regard to the Book of Mormon.

    The best apologetic story I know about the authority of Scripture is what I call the “spiral”. We spiral upwards.

    - Start with ordinary historical/literary arguments that the Gospels are fairly reliable as reports of the character, words and deeds of Jesus, at least if we omit the miracles. (Think of what C. S. Lewis says about how we meet the character of Jesus in Scripture.)
    - Then argue that Jesus is God, by any of the standard apologetic arguments. (Maybe the individual’s relationship with Jesus indicates Jesus’s divinity; maybe we run the Lord/liar/lunatic argument; maybe we run any of the apologetic arguments for Jesus’s resurrection, and then argue that the best explanation of the resurrection is that God raised Jesus from the dead, while God would not raise from the dead a man who falsely claimed to be God.)
    - Next, note that among Jesus’s words there are promises of divine guidance to the Church.
    - Next, observe that the early Church has taken the letters of Paul, including 2 Timothy, to be expressive of her faith. But if the Church is guided, then that which is expressive of the Church’s faith is true. Hence, the doctrinal claims of 2 Timothy are true. But 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says all Scripture is inspired by God. Hence, all Scripture is inspired by God.
    - The Church also accepts such-and-such a canon of Scripture.

    This gives us a non-circular argument for the inspiration (and, hence, authority) of Scripture. This argument, however, depends on the authority of the Church. Moreover, there does not appear to be a better generally accessible argument (i.e., one not dependent on individual religious experience) for the authority of Scripture. So, in the course of arguing for the authority of Scripture, we had to argue for the authority of the Church. We then argued for the authority of the Church on the basis of the authority of Christ. And we argued for the authority of Christ on the basis of the authority of God. And the authority of God, I guess, follows from his essential righteousness and omniscience.

    3. The Interpretation Argument. This argument is essentially different from the preceding two. Incautiously formulated, it says that every text needs interpretation, and the effective authority of a text is no greater than that of its interpretation. Hence, for Scripture to be effectively authoritative (imagine a text in a language we don’t know; no matter how innately authoritative it is, the authority is ineffective for us–it is useless to us, authority-wise), it needs an authoritative interpreter.

    But now your regress comes. After all, the interpreter interprets a text by giving another text, orally or in writing. Hence, the interpretation needs an interpretation, and so on, and your regress goes off.

    However, a better way to formulate the interpretation argument is not as a matter of general principle, but specifically as to Scripture: Look at the important differences between well-meaning Christian interpreters. (And note the fact that Scripture itself says that some of the letters of Paul are hard to interpret.) While some parts of Scripture are easy to interpret, many others seem very hard. Moreover, some of these parts that are very hard are actually very much relevant to the daily lives of Christians. (Think of Jesus’ teachings on divorce.) Furthermore, some of the parts that seem easy to interpret only seem that way because we have inherited an interpretation from others, without which the parts would in fact be very hard to interpret. Unless the Christian life is to be a life of difficult and uncertain exegetical work–and that simply does not seem to be the life in the Spirit that Jesus and Paul promise–it seems we need an authority that can tell us what various parts of Scripture relevant to our lives mean, and can tell us so authoritatively and in a way that does not require much difficult and uncertain exegetical work to understand, and that can tell this to us in the living language of the day.

    A different response to the regress argument is to say that the authority does not speak as much in words as in the life of the liturgy, which is not so much to be interpreted as to be participated in. That would be an Eastern Orthodox approach to the problematic.

  9. Tim Enloe says:

    Steve P.,

    I see your point about the possibly ambiguous nature of the word “authority” in these arguments. I am not sure how to answer you other than to point out that having said Scripture is the “ultimate authority,” there is a clear implication that “penultimate authority” exists. In my own view, as a classical, Magisterial Protestant, I have no problem saying that the Church has Christ-delegated interpretive and administrative penultimate authority with respect to Scripture. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, claims that Church Councils have the duty of arbitrating conflicts of both faith and conscience, provided only that they do so in conformity with Scripture. Classical Protestantism has, in fact, always maintained this sort of “high” view of the “authority” of the Church – the Church has real authority, but it is derived authority, authority subordinate to the inscripturated and ultimate authority of the Word of God. So there is already a distinction made between kinds of authority in my view. The Catholic disagreement would of course be that the authority of the Church to interpret the authoritative words of Scripture is itself infallible. Perhaps as I said in another thread elsewhere the real place to focus attention is on a distinction between “infallibility” (de iure inability to err) and “inerrancy” (no de facto errors present).

  10. Tim Enloe says:

    Alexander, that was an extremely helpful post, especially since it showed different options that a Catholic could take and explained both the pros and cons of them. Thanks very much! As for specifics, following your points:

    1. I don’t buy the argument that to follow tradition on one point (the canon) but not on another (Item X or Y or Z of specific theology) is “inconsistent.” When one steps outside of Reformation and post-Reformation Catholic-Protestant polemics and looks at the whole of the Western theological heritage, it becomes clear that tradition as an interpretive category used on Scripture is not all of piece. There are good traditions and bad traditions, and one must always strive, as the Apostle says, to examine all things carefully and hold fast to that which is good (I Thess. 5:22). Indeed, we all do de facto accept the authority of the early Church when it comes to the canon, but that is a tradition about the identity of the ultimate rule of faith, not a tradition about specific theological interpretations derived from the ultimate rule of faith.

    2. I basically agree with your “spiral” form of argument for Scripture (though I am Reformed, I am not a fideist about Scripture, as many are). The only thing I’d add is that classical Protestantism recognizes both external and internal tests for the reliability of Scripture (Calvin, Institutes I.7-8), but puts the final weight for the individual believer on the internal witness.

    3. I entirely agree with all that you said about interpretation as a theological activity relevant to our daily lives. My only clarification would be that despite the large practical difficulties that sometimes arise (you use Jesus’ teaching on divorce, but I’m not sure that’s ambiguous, as many think it is – justification would be a much bigger one where it is at least possible to see respectable rational alternatives existing), we still don’t need an infallible interpretive authority. Human life under God and in a sinful world is just by nature complex and full of uncertainty. Indeed, the life of faith as faith is not a life in which God promises easy solutions to our problems. We all see through a glass darkly, as the Apostle says (I Cor. 13), and we all have the duty to examine things carefully in order to find out what is good (again, I Thess. 5:22).

    The infallible interpreter is for many Catholics – most particularly the laymen doing “apologetics” on the Internet – just a shortcut around the hard, uncertainty-prone duty of rational analysis and working to develop a healthy faculty of prudential judgment. That is, for a lot of the laymen in the apologetics community that this whole dispute continually arises within, recourse to the Infallible Interpreter of the Catholic Magisterium is just a way to salve their immature personal feelings of helplessness in the face of the sheer complexity of the world. These are personal felings which are driven by an equally immature personal expectation about achieving (epistemological) certainty in the first place. I don’t see, however, that as finite and fallible knowers we are expected to desire or to strive to achieve epistemological certainty. Human reason being stuck inside finite and fallible skulls as it is, rational arguments can always have potential defeaters raised against them. “Proofs” and “refutations” are always relative to the widely varying evaluative abilities of individual persons, and are never absolute. Epistemological certainty is a will-o-the-wisp, unattainable by human beings. So this whole macro-argument about the supposed necessity of recourse to Infallible Interpretive Authority eventually reaches the point where it becomes clear that your Average Joe making the appeal to said Authority just so desperately wants cognitive rest about issues he can’t personally resolve to a level of “no reasonable doubt is possible” that he’s willing to stop thinking about the issues and let someone else do the thinking for him.

    I know how that sort of doubt and need for certainty is – I have experienced it myself – but after many years of reflecting on it and talking with friends and pastors and working through various issues with a great deal of blood and sweat, so to speak, I believe that THAT – hard work and developing prudential judgment – should be the Christian’s goal and not trying to do an end-run around the whole process by surrendering one’s responsibility before God for what oneself believes and does to someone else.

    This is different, by the way, from the ordinary submission to our leaders commanded in, say, Hebrews 13. As public persons, members of a corporate body, we can and should publicly submit to our leaders as those who are to give an account for our souls to God, but this does not entail squelching all private thought that might disagree with the leaders, nor does it entail an absolutely unquestioning obedience to anything and everything they might say. Obedience to human authority figures is a general rule, not an absolute one. I believe that Scripture testifies to this repeatedly in both Testaments, and certainly the whole scope of the Western intellectual-philosophical-political tradition does.

    Again, complicated issues of prudence are involved in all of this, and it just doesn’t make sense to me to act as if there is some kind of Magic Bullet solution to the simply ordinary human condition of fallibility.

  11. Steve P. says:

    Tim, You almost seem to be saying that faith is immature. I’m sure you don’t really mean that but you need to think about this question some more. Accepting the teaching authority of the church is ultimately an act of faith. It is not unreasonable and it is not contrary to reason (in fact for many of us reason seemingly led us there), but it is faith. If you reject faith as an immature need for certainty and try to replace it with “rational analysis and working to develop a healthy faculty of prudential judgment” you’re likely to reason yourself into agnosticism or atheism, and despair.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, I wonder if you think that’s what I’m saying because of the general Catholic tendency to think of “faith” as mainly intellectual assent to “dogma.” Protestants don’t think of “faith” that way. Faith for us does have an intellectual component, but it also has emotional and volitional components. So, no, I don’t have a problem with saying that “faith” can be immature. It’s a full-bodied, full-orbed thing that involves, embraces, and transforms step-by-painful-step whole organic persons throughout the whole course of their lives. Indeed, if “faith” could not be immature, how could it grow up, per Ephesians 4? And what does it mean in Heb. 5:12 when it speaks of people who are content with only the milk and cannot handle the meat of “the oracles of God”?

      As for “reason” leading some of you to “faith,” I can see what you mean within the Catholic system of thought. However, the impression I get from talking to a great many Catholics, especially those influenced by Modern philosophical currents, is that “reason” actually means “submission to the teaching authority of the Church, regardless of what it says and regardless of whether what it says can survive sustained interaction with the world outside of the teaching authority of the Church.” In other words, “reason” for a lot of Catholics in my experience seems to be collapsed into “faith” – the two are identical.

      What ends up being the case is that the Catholic CAN’T entertain any thoughts contrary to the teaching of the Church, for such would be definition be “irrational.” This works out in different ways for different individuals, but almost inevitably it involves a retreat from any standards of accountability that are NOT derived from Magisterial documents or the Catholic’s own personal devotional consciousness about the Magisterial documents. But reason is public, not private only, and so the end result is not reasonable faith by any public standards, but subjective individual-centered fideism.

      And although your “you might reason yourself into agnosticism or atheism and despair” remark may describe what has happened to some individuals, it by no means has to be seen as normative for a 1 Thess. 5:22 “examine all things, hold fast to that which is good” approach to faith. In this area as in so many others, I find that Catholics are basically only talking to themselves when they say such things. They certainly aren’t grappling with the real lived experiences of vast masses of real people outside the Church, but are dealing only in caricatures and self-justification of their own perspectives. I haven’t got any patience for that stuff, sorry.

      • Steve P. says:

        Double dang!

        Stupid computers…

        I said the same thing twice. I think I said it better the second time, I don’t know why I cannot see what I wrote but if there’s a webmaster who needs to look at comments and finally post them I think the second version is more succinct and more to the point.

  12. Steve P. says:

    No, if faith is immature PER SE, which is what you seemed to be saying, it could never grow except by ceasing to be faith. But as I suspected, you may not have been saying what you appeared to be saying.

    Your first definition of “reason” is quite peculiar. It seems unhelpful at best and I simply don’t know what to make of it. Have you ever heard of the idea that man is a rational creature? Do you agree with that idea and how would you explain it? If your answer involves going on about submission to teaching authority and modern philosophical currents I’ll be forced to conclude that you and I don’t speak the same language.

    In any event, “reason” is certainly not identical to “faith,” in ordinary parlance (and in my dialect of english). By “reason,” I and I think most people mean the mental capacity whereby a person validly and logically judges propositions to be true or false (or validly and logically withholds judgement, in the absence of sufficient reasons). Faith, on the other hand, is the graciously bestowed virtue by which a man believes in divine revelation (rather that is one definition and the one most pertinent I think to what you were talking about–another definition is “trust in God,” the virtue of hope).

    The two words have quite different meanings. If you think they are synonymous you are confused. If you are complaining about other people who think they are synonymous I have no comment and really no interest, as I am not acquainted with those people and am not interested in reading gossip about them. I only meant to comment on what YOU were saying. It seems that you and I are speaking at cross purposes, however and dialogue may be impossible. I get the sense you are confusing me with somebody else or think I’m a friend or agent of somebody you’ve quarreled with, Dave Armstrong, perhaps?

    I assure you that I was just commenting on what you were saying because I found it interesting and had no ulterior motives. I didn’t mean to offend and I didn’t mean to stir up bad feelings or remind you of bad feelings you have for those Catholics you’ve quarreled with. My only comment is that although I don’t know those people and cannot defend them, I am sure your judgement of them is clouded by emotion. It is not possible, for example, that a man would be unable to “entertain thoughts contrary to the Church” unless he were literally mentally retarded. Any normal person has the intellectual capability to at least entertain a wide variety of thoughts and contradictory thoughts. Of course entertaining them and firmly believing them or rationally and definitely concluding them to be true is another question, but we all have the normal natural ability to entertain or mentally “try out” all sorts of various ideas and it is in fact not unusual for normal people to use that facility when thinking about various things. I’m sure the people you are complaining about have that normal mental capacity as well since if they were literally mentally retarded you would (at least) not embarrass yourself by seeming to make fun of them or be cruel. Rather, it seems you are angry at those people and are speaking in anger.

    Again, that’s none of my business and I didn’t want to talk about your enemies I was just commenting on what YOU had to say, and hoping to tempt you to expand on it and have a dialogue with me. I guess dialogue between us is impossible, however, since you seem to be suspicious of me.


  13. Steve P. says:

    Dang. I hit “submit comment” and it disappeared. I’ll try again:

    I think you are confusing me with someone else. I don’t know those people you are complaining about and I am not their agent. If you are suspicious that I am a friend of somebody you’ve quarrelled with (Dave Armstrong, perhaps?) you and I won’t be able to have a real dialog.

    Anyway, your definitions are idiosyncratic and unhelpful (for the purposes of communication). “Reason” and “faith” in ordinary parlance are certainly not synonymous. Reason is the natural mental capacity whereby a person judges, validly and logically, that a proposition is true or false or validly and logically withholds judgement because he lacks good reasons. Faith, on the other hand, and in the sense most pertinent to this discussion, is the graciously bestowed virtue whereby a man confidently believes divine revelation.

    The two words have completely different definitions. If you think they are synonymous you are confused. If you are complaining about other people who think they are synonymous I can have no comment, since I don’t know those people. I do feel confident in saying, however, that your judgement of those people seems clouded by emotion. It is not possible, for example, that a man would lack the ordinary ability to “entertain thoughts contrary to the teaching of the Church” unless he were mentally retarded. We can entertain all sorts of thoughts, even contradictory thoughts. Of course entertaining them is not the same as concluding they are true or believing them, but mentally normal people have the intellectual capacity to “try out” or entertain all sorts of thoughts and it is not unusual to use this “trying out” in the process of reasoning about things.

    Since you would not (at least) embarrass yourself by making fun or being cruel to people who are mentally retarded, I can only conclude that you are simply expressing anger towards some people who have hurt you.

    I don’t know those people and I wasn’t talking about those people. I was commenting on and trying to tempt you to have a dialog with me about YOUR ideas and what YOU had to say. I fear that may not be possible as long as you are suspicious of me or think I am somebody else.

    Leaving those people you are quarreling with aside (they are not “the Catholic system of thought” they are just some people you are teed off at–you realize that, don’t you?) There is a relationship between faith and reason, but it is not the relationship of identity or of the words being synonyms. Rather, they are related in that we approach or arrive at divine truths through reason but are confirmed in our conclusions by His gift of faith, which is beyond reason but is never contrary to reason.


  14. Steve P. says:


  15. Steve P. says:

    OK, third time lucky?

    I think you are confusing me with someone else. I don’t know those people you are complaining about and I am not their agent. If you are suspicious that I am a friend of somebody you’ve quarrelled with you and I won’t be able to have a real dialog.

    Anyway, your definitions are idiosyncratic and unhelpful (for the purposes of communication). Have you ever heard of the idea that man is a rational creature and do you agree with it in some way? If so, what does that mean to you. If you answer that question by going on about “Modern philosophical currents” and “submitting to teaching authority” I think communication between us may not be possible. “Reason” and “faith” in ordinary parlance are certainly not synonymous. Reason is the natural mental capacity whereby a person judges, validly and logically, that a proposition is true or false or validly and logically withholds judgement because he lacks good reasons. Faith, on the other hand, and in the sense most pertinent to this discussion, is the graciously bestowed virtue whereby a man confidently believes divine revelation. (“Faith” in another sense refers to trust in God, the virtue of hope, but I don’t think that’s the most pertinent sense when talking about faith and reason).

    The two words have completely different definitions. If you think they are synonymous you are confused. If you are complaining about other people who think they are synonymous I can have no comment, since I don’t know those people. I do feel confident in saying, however, that your judgement of those people seems clouded by emotion. It is not possible, for example, that a man would lack the ordinary ability to “entertain thoughts contrary to the teaching of the Church” unless he were mentally deficient or abnormal. We can entertain all sorts of thoughts, even contradictory thoughts. Of course entertaining them is not the same as concluding they are true or believing them, but mentally normal people have the intellectual capacity to “try out” or entertain all sorts of thoughts and it is not unusual to use this “trying out” in the process of reasoning about things.

    Since you would not (at least) embarrass yourself by making fun or being cruel to people who are mentally retarded, I can only conclude that you are simply expressing anger towards some people who perhaps you feel have hurt you.

    I don’t know those people and I wasn’t talking about those people. I was commenting on and trying to tempt you to have a dialog with me about YOUR ideas and what YOU had to say. I fear that may not be possible as long as you are suspicious of me or think I am somebody else.

    Leaving those people you are quarreling with aside (they are not “the Catholic system of thought” they are just some people you are teed off at–you realize that, don’t you?) There is a relationship between faith and reason, but it is not the relationship of identity or of the words being synonyms. Rather, they are related in that we approach or arrive at divine truths through reason but are confirmed in our conclusions by His gift of faith, which is beyond reason but is never contrary to reason.


  16. Steve P. says:

    And if you had been saying that faith is immature PER SE, which is what you seemed to be saying, it could not become mature without ceasing to be faith.

    As I suspected, you were not saying what you seemed to be saying. I’m still not sure what you were saying since rather than elaborating on it you’ve gone off on a tangent about some Catholics you’ve quarrelled with and THEIR peculiar ideas.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, there certainly is some confusion here, but I think it’s mutual and not just on my side. First, I did not know you were a Catholic – and so I was not treating you as if you were one – until you said a few posts back that reason had seemingly led “some of us” to Catholicism. Second, I am neither confusing you with someone else nor going off on a tangent about other Catholics. Not having known that you were yourself a Catholic, I could not have been confusing you with the other Catholics of whom I was speaking. And since the first sentence of this post – on which you decided on your own initiative to comment – identified the subject of the discussion as “Many Catholic apologists,” talking about these sorts of Catholics is not a “tangent,” but is in fact the whole purpose of this post. So there is some confusion on your part, to be sure.

      Furthermore, since the subject of the post was a particular set of people identified as “many Catholic apologists” followed by specific explication of their specific arguments, I don’t see how my definitions are “idiosyncratic.” Unless, that is, it turns out to be a fact that these particular Catholics are themselves idiosyncratic – which I readily acknowledge may be the case. At any rate, these particular Catholics do in fact seem to me to collapse the distinction between faith and reason in exactly the manner I described. I’m glad that you don’t, but since you don’t that means that much of my post just isn’t relevant to your own position as a Catholic, and so it’s not very gracious of you to criticize me for supposedly attributing positions to you that you don’t hold.

      So again, there seems to be some confusion on your part as to what I am even trying to do in this post. I’m happy to discuss the issues on terminological grounds different from those of my stated subject, “Many Catholic apologists,” but perhaps that should be a separate thread to avoid these sorts of confusions. I’ll have to get to your other remarks a bit later, on my next break.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      And by the way, Steve, none of this has to do with my supposedly being “teed off” at other people who have supposedly “hurt” me, so I’m talking about all of this in a state of being “clouded by emotion.” Let me try to be clear about this. I fully recognize that Catholicism is a huge tent with all kinds of varying positions within it. I’m not trying to reduce “the Catholic system of thought” to one particular (and possibly defective) expression of it. I freely admit that there is a lot about Catholicism that I don’t understand. I have, in fact, spent several years attempting to get better informed about those things which I don’t understand. That is what both led me to talk to the particular subset of Catholics that I am now talking about, and also what led me to being made a virtual pariah by many of my fellow Protestants. At any rate, figuring out what to do about the subset of Catholics I am calling “apologists” has always been difficult for me. I really do hate the simplistic, populist world that most self-proclaimed “apologists” inhabit, and I would really just rather stay out of it entirely. The problem is that I know people who have to deal with that sort of stuff all the time in their daily lives, and who frequently come to me asking me for advice or possible ways to respond to the arguments made on that level. So unless I just want to be a jerk to my friends, I feel that there are times when I have to descend from the pristine, non-emotion-clouded world of pure scholarship and deal with some really foolish stuff. Sometimes dealing with that stuff leads me to excesses of my own; I freely acknowledge that. As I said, figuring out how best to deal with that domain has always been a problem for me, because I don’t like it and wish that I could stay away from it entirely.

  17. Steve P. says:

    OK. I understand. I’m sorry.

    I didn’t mean to say that reason lead me to Catholicism. I meant to say that it lead me to understand that the Church really is an “authority” in a primary sense. I’m drifting towards a more primitive Lutheranism… say 1518-1519 Lutheranism. Sola Fide without all the anticatholic stuff.

    I will insist that I’m not Protestant. I’m tired of protesting.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, thanks for the clarification. I also would grant that the Chuch is an “authority.” I would only say, as I explained elsewhere, that the Church’s authority is a derivative one, not an original one. The original authority is “the Word of God,” which, whether orally spoken or inspired to be written, creates the people of God, the Church. The Church’s authority as the Bride of Christ is subservient to and derivative from the more fundamental authority of her Husband, Who has spoken in His Word (again, whether oral or written). I am not a “naive biblicist” – I don’t clutch my Bible to my chest, blissfully ignorant of where it came from, blissfully careless of the history of its interpretation, blissfully dismissive of the fact that other reasonable people might see different things in it than I do. In fact, I grant a much higher role in interpretation to “tradition” than do many Protestants, and I furthermore insist on following the conciliarist trajectory of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch. 31) in terms of Church councils having the delegated, ministerial authority to decide matters of doctrinal controversy and private conscience.

      I understand not wanting to be called Protestant and being tired of protesting. “Protest” didn’t use to be a word with mostly negative connotations – the Latin protestare is a positive, not a negative, meaning “to testify on behalf of.” That it is mostly a negative word today seems obvious to me, and yes, it does get quite tiring. That goes into why I so strongly dislike the (pseudo) “apologetics” world on the Internet. There’s very little truth in all the frantic giving of answers, and very little that is truly constructive. 90% of my work on this blog has, in fact, been deliberately crafted to try to show a more constructive way of thinking and living for “Protestants.”

      • This is a very sensible response. The question that I would want to pose back would be, is such a view apostolic? You don’t find such a view in the Fathers of the first and second centuries (let alone later periods), nor, one could argue, in the bible itself. In fact, I would argue, the writings of Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Irenaeus would provide significant difficulties for such a view. What you rather see is a teaching that the scriptures correct errors (even those of bishops) and exhort us to righteousness, revealing Christ and the manner of His coming, but the bishops maintain the hypothesis of the scriptures in both their teaching and in the sacramental life of the church (specifically the canons of baptism and Eucharistic consecration). The function of this hermeneutic is unity around the Eucharistic table.

        If anything, the early church does not possess the desire for a epistemological simplicity found in both ultramontenism’s concerns and protestantism’s sola scriptura. For the early church, life is the scriptures, read according to the hypothesis of the church, established by the bishops and practiced in the sacramental life. Each of these “authorities” are held in a dynamic tension, none having absolute authority over the other and each correcting the other (if you don’t believe the scriptures were corrected, you may want to peruse Erhman’s “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”).

        I’ve tried my best to reproduce their tenor faithfully, feel free to correct me.

        • Tim Enloe says:

          Nathaniel, which response are you saying is “sensible”? Before I respond, I’d like to know which one you’re referring to. Thanks.

          • “such a view” would have as its antecedent your statement beginning with “The original authority is ‘the Word of God,’ which, whether orally spoken or inspired to be written, creates the people of God, the Church.”

            My objection would be that such a doctrine is not articulated anywhere in the apostolic or post-apostolic age. I then described that the apostolic age had a variety of authorities, all held as a coherent whole (in spite of sometimes conflicting!), rather than in an ordo of authorities which is a later development.

            My implicit point is that Sola Scriptura is best understood as a polemic against Rome’s claims to universal jurisdiction. Its sitz em leben is, so to speak, the (theoretical) statement “Truth is, by definition, what the pope says.” The response is “Truth is, by definition, what the bible says.” Both groups are looking for a bit of epistemic simplicity which is, I would argue, not an apostolic teaching. It is a sort of Christianized empirical philosophy which is entirely foreign to the early Church.

            Since this debate has largely occurred between Catholics and Protestants, the debate has largely calcified around these two positions. Thus, the debates have largely focused on proof-texts demonstrating the importance of Rome or the scriptures (respectively). Both of these argumentation styles do injustice to the theological vision of the apostolic and post-apostolic writers who, not being involved in such 16th century debates, have other (and I think more important) concerns. I should note that, as an Orthodox Christian, I am unable to commit to either of these two positions. I thus feel like I don’t “have a dog in this fight” other than to try to help people see beyond the polemics of late, post-imperial western christianities so that they can recapture the theological vision of our common ancestors in the faith. I should also probably say that I am not very much bothered by the lack of epistemic simplicity of the early Church and, as such, I am not attempting to posit a third authority.

          • Tim Enloe says:

            Nathaniel, well, may I ask why it is that your historical starting point for the doctrine is the apostolic or post-apostolic age? Doesn’t the history of God’s dealings with His people in the Old Testament matter? What does Genesis 1 say? “In the beginning…God spoke, and it came to pass” (paraphrase). God’s Word (whether oral or written) is the original authority, and it creates everything else, including every other kind of authority. This pattern recurs over and over again in the Old Testament – the people stray away, and what brings them back is a recovery of the Word of God, the original authority that stands behind and really supreme over all the other authorities, even over the Official Ordained Priesthood. I’m honestly not sure why this is objectionable, so if you can explain it to me better, I’d appreciate it.

            Also, I’m not sure your characterization of the apostolic / post-apostolic age as contrasting a “variety of authorities, all held as a coherent whole…rather than an ordo of authorities which is a later development” is correct. Many Church Fathers speak of Scripture as the “supreme” authority, and often enough they actually go on to say that the Word of Scripture is even the standard of correction for the word of catholic bishops.

            It is of course true that a lot of this debate has been deeply colored by the historical controversies of Protestantism and Catholicism, but the Reformers believed – and I do as well – that the supreme authority of Scripture is a much older position than the Reformation era or even than the preceding “high” Medieval era. I think the basics of the view are rooted in the patristic era, and that at least as far as Catholics go, they are guilty of reading their own later “developed” standards of ordo back into the earlier records rather than letting those records say what they actually say.

            I don’t know enough about the Orthodox conception of authority to speak to that, sorry.

          • I’m not sure why my reply was posted above, but it was. So look above to find it…

          • Tim Enloe says:

            Nathaniel, I wrote a medium sized response to your comment, but it got zapped by my computer when I hit the wrong key. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to reconstruct what I wrote right now. Perhaps later. Sorry.

  18. Steve P. says:

    Tim: OK, I think I am commenting on what YOU are saying, not what some “catholic apologists” I don’t know and who don’t seem to be here to defend themselves are saying:

    1. I don’t think it’s valid to reason, as you now seem to be doing:

    Christ is our ultimate authority.
    Christ is the Word of God.
    The Bible is the Word of God.
    Therefore the Bible is our ultimate authority.

    Unless you are saying that the Bibls is literally a Divine Person.

    2. You said earlier that all you mean when you say the Bible is your ultimate authority is that you believe God is your ultimate authority and you believe the Bible is the word of God.

    Roman Catholics and probably your catholic apologist friends ALSO believe that God is their ultimate authority and that the Bible is the word of God. So Roman Catholics ALSO believe the bible is “their ultimate authority” in the sense you earlier defined “my ultimate authority:” although they don’t of course usually say the Bible is their ultimate authority and they don’t usually use the term “authority” precisely the way you are using it.

    The basic reason that Roman Catholics would not agree with you in calling the bible their ultimate authority is that the bible is incapable of doing, for example, what the Church did in the first millenium Ecumenical Councils. Arians, Apollinarians, Nestorians and whatnot all firmly believed in the Bible, and yet the Bible didn’t return the favor and correct their errors. So, in the sense that the Church is the ultimate authority for Roman Catholics, who is your ultimate authority?

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, I think you’re still missing the importance of the distinction I made between “ultimate” and “derived” senses of the word “authority.” I have no problem with the early Church Councils resolving doctrinal disputes, because sola Scriptura is NOT the idea that ONLY the Bible has any kind of “authority” at all. In fact, Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith clearly states that the Church is empowered, in Councils, to resolve in a public fashion both doctrinal disputes and cases of conscience.

      Since you mentioned the Catholics, this is precisely the problem with their criticisms of sola Scriptura. They do not grasp that Protestantism is NOT a “me and my personal copy of the Bible all alone in my room” religion, and so they continually make the mistake of thinking that Protestants are saying a book has to be able to “speak” as if it was a living, breathing person or else what it says cannot resolve controversies.

      Chapter 1 of the same Confession says that the ultimate arbiter of conflicts of the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. When this is put with Chapter 31′s endorsement of Councils as the ministerial (=derived) authority, a great deal of the perceived problem with sola Scriptura disappears.

  19. I sincerely don’t mean this in a patronizing or name calling way (no guilt by association is implied in the slightest). However, I think your argument is essentially the same argument as the Judaizers in Galations (please don’t take offence! none is intended). Their question is fundamentally one of hermeneutics. It is essential to note that Paul is not arguing against Jews, but Judaisers. They believe that redemption has come in Christ, but they are asking “Doesn’t the history of God’s dealings with his people in the OT matter?” Like you, if I understand your argument correctly, the Judaizers are reading the OT historiographically, seeing Christ as the latest of the works of God of the OT. Galatians is essentially the first hermeneutical treatise of Christianity which argues that in fact, Christ is not just the latest thing in God’s history but is the thing itself and everything before has been a foreshadow of things to come. And thus, the thesis of the scriptures is Christ.

    To oversimplify Paul’s argument, the OT is the work of God but in a derivative way, “by angels in the hands of a mediator.” (3:10ff) This is to be contrasted to the kerygma (apostleship) he received “not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” (1:1) (This is, as an aside, doubtless as to the source of Marcion’s later heretical teaching that the OT was written by the demiurge)

    Does this mean that the OT isn’t scripture or that it goes against the will (Christ; 1:4) of God? Paul exclaims, “God forbid!” (3:21; the condemnation of Marcion is clear here) St Paul continues, clarifying what he identifies as the reason the law was given: to prepare us for the coming of the seed (Christ). (3:19) It was given because, since we have wallowed in transgression, we are unable to recognize the saviour when he comes. Thus, the law trains us to Christ as a schoolmaster trains his students to see the truth (Christ). (3:24) We are therefore not justified by circumcision, dietary codes and festal schedules but by faith in Christ which is our baptism. (3:24-27) St Paul also points that this was in fact always the intention of the OT, arguing that Abraham was in fact justified by faith in Christ (the seed; 3:16; this is a bold assertion if ever there was one) and that by faith in Christ we are Abraham’s seed (3:29).

    For St Paul, the best exegesis of the OT is in fact eisegesis, namely that of the canon of baptism which is the proclamation of the Church with is heard with faith. This is especially demonstrated by noticing the union between baptism and faith at the end of chapter 3 (3:24-27) and their relation with the exegesis of Christ from the OT (prographo; 3:1) and the reception of the Spirit through the hearing of faith (3:2) at the beginning of the chapter.

    One should not overlook the subtlety and, in fact, complexity of the Pauline argument. The proclamation of the Church, the canon of faith in baptism (which quickly also becomes the canon of the Eucharistic celebration; commonly known as the canon of the mass or anaphora) is in fact the norm for the OT scripture while at the same time the OT provides the theological vocabulary, so to speak, through which the Church proclaims Christ (according to the canon of faith). In this sense, the scriptures are “supreme” as you suggest. However, it is not merely the scriptures, but also the hypothesis (as Irenaeus calls it) of the Scriptures, which is the proclamation of faith.

    As the scriptures clearly confess, it is the responsibility of the episcopoi to guard the canon of faith which is the doctrine of Christ (and to even excommunicate them from the communion). It is therefore the responsibility of the episcopoi to articulate the canon (1 Tim 3:15) and, simultaneously, be corrected by the scriptures read through the canon of faith (2 Tim 3:16; this verse may not imply the bishops as objects of correction, but I think we can all agree that, from time to time, bishops need to be corrected by the scriptures).

    Thus, as I have tried to demonstrate, there is a complex relationship between the scriptures, their interpretation, the apostolic preaching, the canon of faith (as expressed in baptism and the Eucharist), and the bishops. I think this complex relationship is demonstrable in both the apostolic writings (i.e. the NT and other extremely early writers) and the post-apostolic writings such as Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, etc.

    I think it is also demonstrable that during the medieval period in the West that, in understanding God as an absolutely simple first principle, many theologians also begin to desire epistemological simplicity. This simplicity is created by “ironing out” the complex relationship I have presented above. I think this simplicity is the primary ideological motivation for claims of papal primacy as well as the essential criteria for any competing claim (such as the later defined scriptural primacy). Thus, when protestantism questions the “ironing out” of the authorities of the early Church by Rome, it is not sufficient merely to demonstrate the fallacy of such a position, but it must also propose a new system of epistemological simplicity. Thus, Vicarius Christi and Sola Scriptura are both theological developments which attempt to iron out the complexity of early Christian authorities. Both have simplicity or monarchy as a basic theological goal and thus must have one of the authorities as the primary one. Both views find support in history since when each authority solves a controversy in the Church it is rhetorically elevated (the classic case of this is Chalcedon and the cry “Peter has spoken thus through Leo!”). This is due, I would argue, not to the evidence of a particular ordo, but to the propaganda used to find adoption for a particular resolution of the Church (remember, the heretics are proclaiming the same things at their councils…).

    Finally, lest I be perceived as anti-Western, I am not arguing that such views are heresies, merely that they are a development. Whether development is desired and/or authentic I’ll leave up to others.

    You also mentioned Orthodoxy. I would hesitate to speak for her, but if she had to “fall off the log” for a single authority it would probably be either Liturgy or Scripture. However, since Orthodoxy does not share the drive for epistemological simplicity in her history, she is quite happy to maintain the complexity found in the early Church with some development in the way of primacy.

    Forgive me for writing so much in a small combox and, ergo, forgive me my errors for writing so much in a small combox. :)

  20. Steve P. says:

    I tried again but I don’t think I’m getting it. It seems like you’re saying that the church derives it’s authority from the second Person of the Trinity but scripture IS the second Person of the Trinity.

    If that’s so, then it certainly is infallible. Adorable, even.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, no, I’m not saying Scripture is the Second Person of the Trinity. Scripture is the written-down Word of the Trinity. As such, it has the same authority as the spoken-out-loud Word of the Trinity would have. As the Word of the Creator Himself, it is above all other authorities because all other authorities are created. That’s how Jesus treats Scripture, and that’s how we should treat it. That’s all I’m saying.

      • Actually, I think Steve is right here. Following Paul’s hermeneutic in Galations, the scriptures are NOT the written down Word of the Trinity. In fact, there is no such thing (excuse my hyperbole for a moment…). Christ Himself is the Word of the Father. The scriptures are the word of God because they reveal the Son (who is the Word [capital 'W']) and the nature of His coming. The scriptures are inspired by the Spirit to bear witness to the Son. However, the scriptures only “come to life”, so to speak, when read through the canon of faith (since this is their proper thesis). I think this is the most consistent position to Paul’s argument in Galatians and is stated expressly by Irenaeus in the 2nd century (see his analogy of the portrait of the King/Fox).

  21. As I was thinking about Steve’s question regarding the scriptures and the second person of the Holy Trinity, I thought the following questions might clarify things:

    1. Is Christ the Word of God?
    2. Are the scriptures the Word of God?
    3. Is the Word of God uncreated?

    We must mean something different when we call Christ “Word of God” and when we call the scriptures the “Word of God.” The proper relationship between the two I have already covered (the scriptures being the Word of God in a derivative sense, since they reveal Christ).

    • Tim Enloe says:


      I dunno; I’ve never thought of the Scriptures as revelation in a “derivative” sense. As a Protestant, I’ve always been taught that the Scriptures *are* the very and actual Word of God, the ipsissima verba Dei. I think I understand what you mean by the word “derivative,” though. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, is Himself the Word of God and, as He told His opponents, the Scriptures bear witness to Him (Mt. 5:39). But at the same time, He told the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23-33) that God Himself had spoken in the words of Moses – and presumably the implication there is that through the words of Moses God is speaking to the Sadducees about the question of marriage – so I am not sure that my received view of Scripture as itself “God’s Word” in a primary sense is wrong.

      That’s what I’m getting at when I talk about those Catholics who make out that apart from the testimony of the Church the Scriptures might as well be just like any other book, no more credible or life-changing than, say, Mark Twain or Hemingway or any other “inspired” work of literature. I just can’t see how that could be true given the doctrine of inspiration. The doctrine of inspiration as I have always been taught it is that, as Peter says, “holy men of God moved by the Holy Spirit spoke” (2 Pet. 1:20). Since you have made so much of Paul in Galatians, what do you think of 3:8 – “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham”? Scripture, writings on parchment, is here being treated as if it was the very voice of a person. Is that just a literary conceit, or, as I have maintained against those Catholics I have been talking about, are the words of an author (auctor) themselves invested with authority (auctoritas) precisely because they are (or at least represent in the medium of writing) his actual thoughts?

      So I suppose now my question to you is do you have a view of inspiration that is itself different from what a Protestant would hold, as I outlined above?

      • Nathan says:


        Your position (“precisely because they are… his actual thoughts”) seems to hinge, of necessity, on the perfection of every single word of scripture. However, it is clear that we do not know that we have every single word, or at least we must say for the majority of history there was no certainty of every single word (given the ubiquitous textual variations). Whether you accept the views of the Textus Receptus/KJV-only crowd, the Majority Text proponents, or the NA/UBS critical scholarship, all are ultimately forced to admit that the type of certainty they claim could not have been had by anyone living prior to their reconstructed text.

        It gets worse when you turn to linguistics, because of the impossibility of verbal plenary translation (I don’t know of any two languages having completely isomorphic semantic ranges). Consequently, you must learn dead languages (Koine Greek, ancient Hebrew) and do so without the aid of an inspired dictionary or lexicon. Furthermore, language and culture are inseparable and constantly changing, so you must posit some sort of divine, time- and culture-transcending word, yet clearly the scriptures are culturally conditioned. They are full of metaphors, symbols, and idioms, unstated assumptions, as well as numerous forms of abstract and concrete references—and how do you know what the proper distinctions are? This type of knowledge can only be gained by tradition, negating the idea of a transcendent written voice.

        Which brings us to Galatians 3:8. It is not a literary conceit, it is anthropomorphism in service of polemic. Do you really want to claim that written words have a mind and can foresee events? Paul’s language defies any sort of literal, rational interpretation, because he not only places the existence of scripture prior to Abraham, he has the scriptures themselves speaking to Abraham, as if God’s interaction with Abraham was on the level of pen pal.

        • Tim Enloe says:


          OK, I can see how some of the language I’ve been using gives rise to your particular criticisms. For one thing, though, I am not a seeker of “certainty” in the sense that you seem to be using the word. I think that, although it sounds paradoxical, “certainty” is a very relative thing – as finite knowers, we don’t have an infinite, transcendent perspective. All of our knowledge is perspectival, related to certain conditions, times, and background faith assumptions. For lack of a better term, I call what seems to be the popular use of the term “certainty” epistemological certainty, a certainty that no rational consideration could ever successfully challenge (which implies that all challenges are ipso facto irrational). I don’t believe in that kind of “certainty.” I do believe in, again for lack of a better term, moral certainty, which is not as clean and neat and tidy as epistemological certainty, but is nevertheless properly described as “certainty.” So then, when I speak of the Christian confession that Scripture is “God’s Word,” or, as I put it, the very words of God (ipsissima verba Dei), I am describing a moral certainty, not an epistemological certainty. The former bypasses the points you make about texts and linguistics – they are good points in the realm of epistemology, but perhaps not in the realm of theological ethics.

          Second, of course I’m not claiming that written words have a mind and can foresee events. I would think there is another option than that – perhaps saying that Galatians 3:8 is metonymy, so that “Scripture,” which ordinarily means something written by a pen, in that context instead is convertible with “God’s Voice.” That is, in fact, how I understand the doctrine of inspiration, although I should immediately clarify that I don’t believe in the dictation theory of how God used the human authors of Scripture. I believe it was the Protestant theologian B.B. Warfield who described inspiration as God pouring His light through stained glass windows – the light is still God’s pure light, but it took on the particular hues of the media through which it came. Thus, Scripture is literally “God’s Word” at the same time as it is the words of Luke or Paul or John or Amos, etc. Scripture thus gives us the transcendent truth of God in a non-transcendent form.

          How do you view inspiration?

          • Nathan says:

            I think you’ve confused me with Nathaniel. He seems to be better educated than I, so I suppose I should apologize for butting in.

            I may have been attacking a caricature, and definitely do not mean to propose something like epistemic certainty. Having been around enough individuals who believe the scriptures are epistemic certainty, I was simply listing some of my objections.

            I am not sure how to simplify my view of inspiration sufficiently to explain it in a combox. I’ll keep it one-dimensional for now just to get a point across, so sorry for the truncation. Books such as Esther and Song of Solomon do not strike me as having any apparent inspiration, so I am forced to trust the believing community in history that they were not mistaken. The task of identifying what is inspired was then a matter of the ongoing work of the Spirit, that is a sort of continued inspiration.

            The act and manner of inspiration is always within the believing (or often apostate believing) community, so any transcendence that may be possessed by the written product of inspiration can only be appropriated within the believing community. Likewise, inspiration does not transcend culture or language, nor should it: the Spirit’s activity is ongoing, so even if written inspiration ceases, continued inspiration is necessary (e.g. the Spirit leads and guides us—plural, the community—into all truth). This is why I stopped rejecting the “apocrypha”—the ongoing work of the Spirit affirms the validity of the deuterocanon. Likewise, I do not expect the scriptures to conform to modern science, because they are thoroughly embedded within the culture they were produced by, just as we are thoroughly embedded within our culture.

            They were produced by and for the believing community as a work of the Spirit under and in response to specific circumstances. This means that we should be very reticent to formulate doctrine out of the scriptures, because they do not contain all of the context necessary to do so. Rather, the scriptures affirm the doctrine that has always been taught, being the record of how the doctrine came to be. So, to give an example, the lack of direct prescription for infant baptism in the scripture does not mean the practice is wrong or “unbiblical” or even optional (reasonable people may disagree as they say).

            That went on a lot longer than I thought, and I feel like it’s very incomplete. The complex work of God in a complex world… Even still, I feel I’m oversimplifying things. Out of time for now, but thanks for listening.

          • Haha, I certainly don’t mind being confused with you Nathan. :) The name we both possess is a name far greater than I, though I aspire to someday be a man in whom there is no guile.

            I would suggest that the typical (Protestant) manner of understanding inspiration will always carry with it the difficulty of Esther and Songs. The view I have put forward solves this problem. Inspiration is the belief that the thesis of the scriptures is Christ. Therefore, whether explicitly (literal interpretation) or implicitly (allegorical, metaphorical, and other various interpretations), the scriptures are about Christ. Thus, Clement of Rome, discussing the coming of Christ into the world, calls Christ “the Sceptre of the majesty of God” (Clement I.XVI; keep in mind this text was considered by many early Christians to be in the NT). His point here is doubtless that Christ is the Sceptre which was extended to Esther which saved her life (he mentions Esther explicitly in LV). Thus, Esther prophesies the nature of Christ’s coming, as one who saves us from death and allows us to approach the throne of God. Because Esther prophesies Christ, it is inspired. We see the same thing for Song of Songs. Ignatius sees in Song of Songs the burial anointing of Christ (Ephesians XVII). Far more than accepting Esther and Songs as inspired without seeing how, these books have been God breathed since they prefigure the coming of Christ.

            It is because of this method that Justin Martyr is able to argue that while the scriptures are the central written meditation of the Church, other texts are inspired in a lesser way (the phrase he uses is is ‘spermatikos logos’ or “the seed of the Word [of God]“; the scriptures are inspired with a capital ‘I’ and other luminaries such as Socraties was inspired with a lower-case ‘i’) because they too announce the coming of Christ.

            Finally, you get Irenaeus’ wonderful treatise “On the Apostolic Preaching” (get Behr’s edition, it is superb) in which Irenaeus formally outlines the major prophesies of the OT as pointing to Christ and calls Christ the “hypothesis of the scriptures.” This work is short and well worth the read, if for no other reason than it contains the first known reference to a proto-homoousias which is often overlooked by scholars of the Arian controversy (and modern day Arians).

          • Ugh, I can’t believe I misspelled Socrates. I’ll join Tim with a “mea culpa.”

          • Tim Enloe says:

            Very quickly, as I am about to run out the door to my next class, I would like to thank everyone who has so far participated in this discussion about Scripture. I have found it very profitable in a number of ways, and although I’m extremely short on time today and can’t ponder the comments from yesterday, let alone respond to them today, I do intend to look at them and hopefully keep this going. Very profitable!

  22. Tim, we should really continue this (I think beneficial) conversation over some coffee. My combox only has 7 lines of text. :)

    That being said, perhaps there are some premises we can agree on? I would propose the following as sort of assumed in our discussion:
    1. The scriptures have never been treated merely as a “flat” authority until the radical reformation. The Gospels are always the center, then the epistles, prophets, historical book, law, so-called apocryphal books, etc. I’m not here attempting to propose a specific ordo, just merely that there is sort of a canon within the canon.

    2. The NT represents a developing view of the interplay of Christ and the OT, but nonetheless one that represents a significant development by the time of its authorship. By this I mean that the NT authors have actually spent time thinking about the way the OT relates to Christ. We see this, at the bare minimum, in the Christological prophecies identified by the NT authors (i.e. “a virgin shall conceive,” etc).

    3. That the scriptures, while containing many varied authors with specific nuances, are in some sense divinely inspired. They are not just “another book” (I’ve honestly never met a Catholic that would argue this, but obviously they are out there). In fact, they consist so centrally within the life of the Church that it would be impossible to speak of such a Church apart from the scriptures.

    4. The scriptures are a liturgical text; that is (without impugning private study in any way) the scriptures function primarily as the central collective meditation of the Church. They are read in Her divine services and, together with the Eucharist, they form half of the primary Christian worship activity: the liturgy.

    Now that we have covered some basics, before I address your questions I should probably cover a bit of the history of hermeneutics. We should probably start with the Jews. How is it that the Jews came to regard the various books of their scriptures as a single divine source? That’s just the thing: they never did! Until the development of the codex, no one ever thought that the various OT books were in fact a single source since they were read on separate scrolls. The unity of the disparate texts was held in the fact that they were read together in the synagogue and temple services. The unity of the texts was in fact the people gathered around the text, the Israel of God. It is in fact the Israel of God which they believed to be the hypothesis of their scriptures. They believed that, regardless of the historical author of the text, the various books all had the same topic: Israel. How can it be that there is multiple authors and yet a single topic? Clearly, in addition to the human authors there is also a divine author who, particular authors not withstanding, weaves together disparate texts into a single meaning. Thus, it is the singularity of thesis which presents a singular transcendent author. Further, this singular transcendent author, having already created unity apart from the intention of the authors, is even able to write meanings into the text which were never intended by the author. There is significant scholarly material on this topic, so I won’t bibliographize here. The main point is that a group of people hold a set of texts as divinely inspired do to the singularity of topic (the topic which is defined by the group, not least through its priests).

    I think it to be the consensus of OT scholars, and the particular thesis of Dr. David Thompson, that by the time of Christ OT Jewish interpretation had jelled into two schools. The first of these schools read the scriptures historiographically. Namely, the shalom of God is a future age to come and the purpose of the messiah is to usher in that age. The second school reads the scriptures ontologically or charismatically. This school sees the shalom of God as an ontological, rather than chronological, reality which rests upon the messiah himself. The goal here is not a peaceful age, but the new David. The messiah is the shalom of God. I’ve drastically oversimplified, but it will have to do.

    Fast forward a bit and we get to the apostles. The typical picture of the apostles pre-resurrection is well established in the first camp. They believe the messiah will come and set up the kingdom of peace. Yet something drastic happens between Passover and Pentecost. They great the risen Lord, He confers with them and they receive the Holy Spirit. From Acts 2 onward, and through out all of the apostolic epistles, we find a group of people thoroughly entrenched in the second school (though of course with hints of the first school here and there).

    To put it simply, we have the same scriptures, but a new people, a new Israel. For this Church, scripture has always been the Spirit of God revealing the Word of God to come in the flesh. What was spoken of in the scriptures in types and shadows is now spoken plainly through the incarnate word (Hebrews 1:1-2). This church cherishes the idea of Christ as the Word of God because it:
    1. Establishes Christ as the singular author…
    2. … and seeing Christ as the singular topic.

    However, this engagement with the text pre-supposes an encounter with the living Christ and passed on through preaching, governed by the apostles, bishops and elders and summarized in the baptismal canon (which is the telos of our faith in Christ). Further, as can be demonstrated numerous times using form criticism, the NT canon contains a multitude of early Christian liturgical expressions (the Magnificat is not the least of these). Even further, all of Paul’s argumentation is in fact sacramental language (body of Christ, in Christ, etc).

    What we see in the apostolic writings then is this:
    1. The establishment of a new people built on the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
    2. The proclamation (canon) of faith (which comes from #1) which is the hypothesis of scripture (OT)
    3. The singular author (proceeding from a single hypothesis) who Himself is also the subject of the text.
    4. The clear adoption of the “ontological school” (this is in fact the whole purpose of the epistle to the Galatians; the historiographicists are arguing for circumcision).

    Thus, regarding inspiration, it is only when the canon of faith (what would eventually become the Nicene creed) is held as the normative reading of the OT that we find Christ as the hypothesis of the OT and therefore as its transcendent author. It is only in this case that we can call it the (created) “Word of God.” And even this we must state in a derivative way since it is Christ himself who is the uncreated Word of the Father.

    We can see then that our very understanding of the scriptures as the Word of God is dependent on the apostolic preaching, handed down (paradidomi) by the bishops in the sacrament of baptism, confirmed in the Eucharist, etc all held as a coherent whole. As I said before, “apostolic age had a variety of authorities, all held as a coherent whole, rather than in an ordo of authorities which is a later development.”

    Finally, I turn directly to your response (if you are still with me). You are right in your estimation of the value of John 5:39. The apostles, having met the risen Christ, searched the OT and found Him as its thesis. I would never want to say that God did not speak to Moses. However, I would want to qualify that this is in a derivative way since God has spoken to us directly with His Son. Further, the passage in Matt 22:23-33 clearly reveals an ontological reading of the OT, not the historiographical one: the resurrection is not just the time of shalom, it is the person of shalom. Thus, there is no marrying of giving in marriage, but worship like the angels. Regarding your understanding of 2 Peter 1:20, God spoke through the Holy Ghost and moved the prophets, this is true. But what did this voice speak? We see this in 2 Peter 1:17: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Thus, the created Word of God reveals the uncreated Word of God. Further, in verse 19 he fights against the gnostics who are teaching that there is a prophecy understood only privately, that is, a hidden interpretation other than what the Church confesses publicly in Her liturgy. What is confessed publicly? That Christ has suffered, died and risen.

    I should point out that it is from 2 Peter 1:19 that Irenaeus develops his idea of apostolic succession: namely, that is true which is professed publicly by the church in every place where it has been passed on faithfully (a matter of public record: apostolic succession). Further, it is this canon of faith which has been passed down through apostolic succession which is the normative way to read the scriptures. The gnostics, too, read the scriptures. However, they read it apart from the canon of faith.

    Such, then, is their [the Valentinians'] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked are in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.

    In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics.

    Finally, I think you misunderstand the Abrahamic reference in Galatians. Paul is arguing that God prophesied the coming of the seed (Christ) and that Abraham placed his faith in that seed (Christ) and was thus justified by faith (in Christ). The Word that was spoken to Abraham was, in fact, Christ.

    I hope this has been helpful, and I apologize that it has been so long.

    • Tim Enloe says:


      That’s quite a bit to chew on, but I thought it was all very good. I agreed with a whole lot of it, but want to reserve time for more thought about some aspects of it.

      At any rate, one thing I can say right now concerns your point about the Jews not viewing the books as a single, unitary source. I agree with that; in fact, the reasoning behind this (the reasoning concerning the community setting of the revelation and the original multiplicity of its documents), is exactly why about 99% of the time I refuse to use the term “the Bible” but instead use the term “the Scriptures.” I believe that “the Bible,” a very standard Protestant term if there ever was one, is an artifact of the Gutenberg printing press, and that the advent of printing and mass production of books has dramatically influenced how we think about “God’s Word.” There’s a lot that goes into that, obviously, but I thought I should let you know that a basic antipathy to the “domestication” of the Scriptures by the printing press and its associated technologies and cultural assumptions is where I am coming from.

  23. Steve P. says:

    Butting in with a tangential comment: I think faith can give the believer epistemological certainty (especially if and when that’s just what that particular believer needs), that is one of the reasons faith is not knowledge, and this possibility of epistemological certainty should not make us deride that kind of faith as irrational gullibility nor the epistemologically certain believer as immature or irrational precisely because the object of his faith is true and worthy of the firmest and most certain faith (and we can rationally know *that* fact with moral certainty).

    …since I promised myself I wouldn’t interrupt your fascinating discussion with more than a single sentence this being a mere ungrammatical fragment…

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Steve, what all this shows is that the terms we’re all using are not being used univocally or perhaps even clearly.

      I’d like to know what’s your take on how a person’s faith can give real certainty if, to use your words, “the object of his faith is true and worthy of the firmest and most certain faith” but the object of faith has repeatedly failed basic rational tests relating to its own claims. For instance, what if the body of Jesus was found, and there was no reasonable doubt possible that it was Jesus’ body? Would Christian “faith” still be legitimate certainty because it was placed in an object that is “true and worthy of the firmest and most certain faith”? What about a Roman Catholic who “by faith” believes that divine-right papal supremacy (inclusive of temporal sovereignty on the grounds that the spiritual is ontologically superior to the temporal) is a “historical” reality despite the immense amount of evidence against it?

      I don’t think there are any easy answers to faith and reason questions, but since you and Nathaniel are grilling me so severely on these points, how about putting your own claims to some concrete tests?

  24. Tim:
    I’ve been overwhelmed with work the last couple of weeks, and now that it’s finally let up, my daughter’s started kindergarten. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to devote the time to a response it deserves because of those things. But your last question hits right at the point that I consider the most important difference I have with you, so it’s probably a good time to come in late.

    When last we spoke on this subject, I mentioned objective indicia of authority, and what I’d like to do is to tie that together with what St. Thomas says in order to bring together the difficulty that I can’t get around regarding your position. The quotation that I find most apt for the anaylsis is the question of whether sacred doctrine is a science (Prima Pars, q. 1, a. 2), first specifically St. Thomas’s reply to the question of whether sacred doctrine, as a science, deals with particulars. St. Thomas replies to the Second Objection thusly: “Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally, but they are introduced rather both as examples to be followed in our lives (as in moral sciences) and in order to establish the authority of those men through whom the divine revelation, on which this sacred scripture or doctrine is based, has come down to us.” Then in dealing with the question of whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument (a. 8), St. Thomas says in reply to the Second Objection: “Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these [philosophical] authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): ‘Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.’”

    Now neither of those specifically say what it means to establish authority, but in the Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 1, a. 10, regarding whether the Pope has the authority to draw up a symbol of faith, it becomes clear what St. Thomas has in mind, namely the God-given authority to a man to speak with the same authority as Christ Himself. That is not an authority that can be denied within its bailiwick, any more than God Himself can be denied. And it is specifically that kind of authority, the authority of Christ Himself in another man, that must be experienced in order for any other particular instance of authority, including inspiration of Scripture, to be properly grounded in knowledge. Those kinds of actions, action in personam Christi, is what St. Thomas would consider as objective indicia of divine authority.

    To further elaborate on that subject, ex opere operato and “sacerdotalism” is often accused of being a medieval innovation, but based on the argument that I have outlined, it would have simply been a logical necessity for the Church to have any real authority. IOW, the Scholastics were simply making explicit what had always been inherent in the Church’s concept of authority. In order for a Church to be real authority, a real vehicle of revelation, it HAD to have people knowable at least to a moral certainty to be acting in personam Christi. That is the same answer one would get in principle from Aristotle, because he would also say that you can’t know inspiration without empirical knowledge of what divine authority is. You can’t trust authority to tell you what authority is without an infinite regress.

    We had previously discussed whether baptism could qualify as such an authority, and the more I have considered the issue, the more I think it is not viable. That is why I think that Protestantism demonstrating authority in the specific sense that St. Thomas means it is impossible. Ultimately, you don’t believe that anyone in any capacity is acting in personam Christi; that is the problem with the Calvinist view reducing the Sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Any person, even a non-Christian, can administer baptism, so there is no divine authority required. The Lord’s Supper is not an exercise of divine authority, but a cooperation of both minister and receiver, ex opere operantis. It entirely eradicates divine authority, Sacraments in personam Christi, and that destroys any basis for justifying “inspired” or “canonical” Scriptures.

    For that reason, I agree with Dr. Pruss’s three-fold formulation of the argument above, but I would say there is an unbridgable gap in making the “spiral” to Jesus’s divinity anything but probable opinion, meaning that the science of sacred doctrine must depend on the first and third arguments. And there is no way on St. Thomas’s account to get around the first and third arguments for canonicity or interpretation.

    That’s why I think that Protestantism ultimately can never be an alternative for the traditional understanding of Christianity. It has to be a novelty, and moreover, it has to be a novelty that doesn’t even qualify as a proper object of knowledge from the Scholastic perspective. Note, for example, the criticism reproduced by Perry Robinson at the following link:

    From the perspective given above, that loss of episcopal authority is simply fatal to any claim of Protestantism to be in continuity with the apostolic church. That’s not to say Christian faith is impossible in such a configuration, but it precludes adherence of faith from being anything other than opinion. Consequently, while it is possible to have infused virtue in one’s conduct (i.e., the exercise of charity), one can never *know* anything by faith, so the content of revelation as revelation is not preserved. The fullness of the apostolic deposit cannot be sustained in this manner, meaning that this cannot be the Church that Christ founded.

    Truly, I just cannot see any way around the problem. If St. Thomas is right, then Protestantism is essentially flawed in its concept of authority, and there’s no hope for it. It’s not an alternative or a real possibility for Christian faith; it’s dead on arrival, or at least at the point ongoing episcopacy ceased to be a viable option (ab initio if Dr. Tighe’s argument to the above-linked thread is correct).

    • Jonathan, you said, “the Scholastics were simply making explicit what had always been inherent in the Church’s concept of authority.”

      This is precisely what I have argued against: there is no explicit or implicit view of the relationship between authorities in the early Church (any such view is a post-apostolic development). The difficulty of the scholastic period is that the scholastics attempted to establish a philosophically perfect metaphysical schema and then attempted to norm all of Christianity to that schema. Any complexities they found in early Christianity they “ironed out” so that they would fit into their preconceived theory. This theory (schema or ordo) posited, due to their teaching of the absolute simplicity of the divine essence, that authority too must have a “simple” head to which all other authorities are subject. From among the early collection of Christian authorities, Rome chose the episcopacy and specifically the Roman pontiff and states that his actions are “in personam Christi.” Due to the indebtedness of the Reformation to late medieval theology, it would not be fitting for them to argue against this (Roman) ordo of simplicity with an ordo of complexity. Therefore, Protestantism posits the simple ordo of Sola Scriptura.

      My contention, following Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”, is that early Christianity posited a variety of authorities, viewing them as a self-correcting coherent whole. Further, I have argued that understanding of inspiration required for Sola Scriptura to function as a complete system is essentially the same argument as the Judaisers in Galatians and that the teaching of Paul in response is in fact a cogent doctrine of inspiration, one that agrees with the rest of the writings in the apostolic age and the Fathers of the Church.

      In short, I agree with your conclusion, but disagree with your methodology. You have essentially filtered all thought through Thomistic categories. And while Aquinas isn’t bad per se, the history of Christian thought is especially leery of those who filter their thoughts through single thinkers (*cough*Originists*cough*). This is especially problematic when, I think, the apostles themselves deal specifically with these issues. Which of the Fathers improves on the apostles? Thus, I think the best method is to demonstrate the apostolic teaching from the scriptures and then show how our understanding of this teaching finds universal support throughout Christian thought. I think this can be done in regards to the question “What it means to call the scriptures inspired?” Further, I think the complexity of early authorities is also easily demonstrable, if for no other reason than the “ironing out” of authorities is the primary reason for the Great Schism.

      • I should clarify that last statement. The primary reason for the Great Schism is that Rome and the East “iron out” the apostolic authorial complexity in somewhat different ways. This mismatch is what leads to the Great Schism. I’m not suggesting this is all Rome’s fault.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Jonathan, wow, quite a bit happened in this comment box since early last evening. I just got to work myself this morning, and today is going to be an extremely busy day of teaching and then having to come back tonight for “Back To School Meet the Teachers Night.” So, I won’t even be able to read through your comment today, much less try to respond. However, until I can get to it, let me say thank you for taking the time to respond. I recently wasn’t very kind to you in the heat of polemics on that other website, so I actually didn’t expect you to respond at all. Let me apologize for those few things I said there, and move on from there. I don’t know what sort of response I’ll be able to give to your post, because, as I said, I am no expert on Thomas or Aristotle. I listed those texts on the other website merely to indicate the sources I was looking at as I thought through my argument, not to say that I believe I can’t be challenged either on the texts themselves or how I was using them. All polemics aside, I really am intensely interested in learning, and since learning does not happen apart from humility and openly admitting one’s limitations, that is the posture I always try hard to put forward. Hopefully I can read your comment before the end of the week and see if I have any ability to comment intelligently on it.

  25. Steve P. says:

    But the object of our faith *hasn’t* failed any rational tests. Reason only supports our faith, thus justifiable “moral certainty” (in the realm of knowledge as opposed to faith). I guess you are asking “what if that weren’t so?” I can’t think of how to respond to that, except “who cares, since it is so?”

    As for the Roman Catholic, let him defend himself.

  26. Tim,

    Are you confusing me with Nathan? I’ve never argued for epistemic “certainty” (which would be a farcical argument) but “simplicity” (for an excelent scholarly work on simplicity in the midieval period’s metaphysics, see Dr. David Bradshaw’s “Aristotle East and West”). Namely, I’ve argued that early Christianity had a variety of early authorities with no demonstrable ordo and that, in the ordos of the universal jurisdiction of Rome and Sola Scriptura, we find a theological development which attempts to give order to the early Christian authorities by simplifying the complex relationships between the authorities. I’ve not argued against the truth claims of either assertion, only that the concerns of these theological developments are unique to the medieval era and therefore by definition not apostolic claims. There is still plenty of room to argue such claims are authentic developments, but they are developments nonetheless. This is in fact what Rome actually does: it argues that infallibility of the bishop of Rome is an authentic development that is internally consistent within its hermeneutical circle. See Dr. Mike Liccione for a summary of this argument.

    Second, I think your order is backwards. Ordinarily, “λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ” (Word of God) and “λόγον τοῦ κυρίου” (Word of the Lord) in the LXX ordinarily refers to the prophetic voice of God (as opposed to a written text). That voice was heard by the prophets who testify to it through their writing. It is the apostolic contention that this voice, through which the world was formed (Genesis 1), has itself become flesh (John 1, Hebrews 1, Galatians 3, etc). For Paul the scriptures (OT) are “by an angel through a mediator [Moses].” They are thus the Word of God in a derivative sense, where Christ is the Word of God in a primary sense. Further, for Paul, the scriptures are the Word of God [derivative] because they proclaim the coming of the Word of God [primary] in the flesh. This is the express purpose of Galatians 3 and the quote from Irenaeus above: the canon of faith is what enables the scriptures to be the Word of God. The implicit polemic here is that the Jews may have the OT texts, but they do not have the Word of God. Thus, the image of light through stained glass is incomplete. It is not merely the moving of the text’s author by the Holy Spirit, but also the reception of that text through the canon of faith. Inspiration is not merely the inspiration of the author, but also the inspiration of the reader.

    All of this demands that the inspiration of the scriptures requires a context. This context is sacramental, liturgical, episcopal, charismatic and scholarly. To use Aristotle, this context is essential to what it means to be the scriptures. The scriptures are the matrix of our faith received by the phenomenon of the resurrection, in the creed of our baptism, and lived in the life of the Church.

    It should be pointed out that this is why we have a closed canon. To hold that God’s voice is primarily the holy writings and then to hold a closed canon is to suggest that God has stopped speaking. However, in the view I’ve proposed, where Christ is the Word of God in the flesh and the scriptures testify to His coming, it is intrinsically required to close the canon: only those texts which foreshadowed his coming and which witnessed first hand to his coming can rightly be called the Word of God. It is because of this hermeneutic that Gnosticism cannot make sense: any special revelation one would receive could only at most foreshadow Christ’s coming. Because Christ has already come, this is meaningless drivel (or worse, demonic deception).

    In short, the scriptures are the Word of God because they reveal Christ: either in the foreshadowing of the OT or the testimony of the phenomenon of the resurrection in the NT. This is my view of inspiration. For the record, the Orthodox Church has no dogma on the inspiration of the scriptures (other than the fact that they are inspired). However, Fr. Dr. John Behr (dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary) has an excellent book which makes many of these same arguments: “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.”

    Finally, I’m not sure where you get the distinction between moral and epistemological certainty (not that I argued for certainty to begin with). Further, I’m not sure claiming “moral rather than epistemological” as a way to bypass texts and linguistics is really accurate. The Council of Jerusalem and the debates of Galatians are explicitly moral controversies (circumcision, meat offered to idols and justification by faith). Further, the understanding of the inspiration of the OT is the main character in these debates. Let me phrase it as a question and answer:
    Q – “Since the OT is inspired, do we have to be circumcised?”
    A – “It depends on what you mean by ‘inspired’. If by inspiration of the scriptures you mean a revelatory phenomenon by the Holy Spirit in the author, then yes, you must be circumcised, since the law was given by eternal revelation and Christ is the newest revelation. However, if by ‘inspired’ you mean that they speak of Christ and reveal his coming, then the purpose of the law has been fulfilled in his coming. Therefore, circumcision is of no benefit.”

    In short, the first view, what I have often called the historiographical view, is the primary view of both the Judaisers and of Protestantism. I find this ironic because of the importance of justification by faith to the Protestant phrenoma. It is my opinion that Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide are in fact mutually exclusive, since Sola Scriptura places one clearly on the side of the Judaisers. To adopt the ontological hermeneutic would require an external authority which norms the Scriptures (i.e. the canon of faith, a pope, etc), or at least restricts some of the options, and this is precisely the unclear ordo that Sola Scriptura seeks to combat.

    Please know that I’m not just critiquing a caricature of Sola Scriptura. I’m quite aware that by it Luther meant quintessential source and sole norm (as opposed to the sole source/norm that gets passed around these days) and as such would recognize councils, liturgy, episcopacy, etc as other extremely important sources for theological reflection. I can’t say I know much of Calvin’s views, but I would think them much closer to Luther than the other options.

    Also please know that I’m not trying to polemicise but trying to come (together) to an accurate understanding of these matters, particularly as they relate to the texts in discussion (specifically Galatians as I’ve argued).

  27. I also forgot to ask, which views would you like me to put to a concrete test? I’ll gladly consider any you wish to propose.

    If the body of Christ was found, it would severely question my faith. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

  28. Don’t sweat it, Tim. I clearly hadn’t got my point across with sufficient clarity and hadn’t explained my own reasons and motives. I hope I’ve gotten across how much I feel between a rock and a hard place from a metaphysical perspective. It’s not that I am motivated by a desire either for subjective certainty or for a superficial dismissal of other positions or of the authority of Scripture. From my perspective, there are problems that I really can’t get around in good conscience, and that obviously poses a problem for me, regardless of whether anyone is persuaded from Protestantism by them. I suspect these difficulties are common to many Catholics, and I think that they are reflected in the apologetics arguments by Catholics, even if those aren’t always completely articulate (as Dr. Pruss observed).

  29. Nathaniel:
    “This is precisely what I have argued against: there is no explicit or implicit view of the relationship between authorities in the early Church (any such view is a post-apostolic development). The difficulty of the scholastic period is that the scholastics attempted to establish a philosophically perfect metaphysical schema and then attempted to norm all of Christianity to that schema. Any complexities they found in early Christianity they “ironed out” so that they would fit into their preconceived theory. This theory (schema or ordo) posited, due to their teaching of the absolute simplicity of the divine essence, that authority too must have a “simple” head to which all other authorities are subject. From among the early collection of Christian authorities, Rome chose the episcopacy and specifically the Roman pontiff and states that his actions are “in personam Christi.” Due to the indebtedness of the Reformation to late medieval theology, it would not be fitting for them to argue against this (Roman) ordo of simplicity with an ordo of complexity. Therefore, Protestantism posits the simple ordo of Sola Scriptura.”

    Nathaniel, you’re speaking specifically of the authority of the Pope, which I agree is not a matter of metaphysical necessity (nor does St. Thomas make that argument; he argues from revelation about St. Peter). All I meant was the completely traditional view that the bishop as overseer is the image of the Heavenly Father, who is God, theos, connoting the oversight of everything. That’s an argument that works just as well for St. Ignatius, who argues that the bishop is the image of Christ just as Christ is the image of the Father. You can make the same case that I made from the theology of ikons; I was simply pointing out that it was affirmed in Scholastic metaphysics (and for that matter, in the Western Fathers St. Augustine and St. Hilary) as well.

  30. Jonathan,

    Certainly your argument is much closer to home in Ignatius. However, I would argue there is still significant difficulty. Ignatius is not making a metaphysical argument, but a Eucharistic one. His concern is “to have but one Eucharist.” (Philadelphia IV) And again, “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” (Smyrnaeans VIII) Each place we see Ignatius saying something to the effect of “obey the bishop as you would Christ” it is immediately next to a passage about having a single Eucharist. The problem Ignatius is dealing with is Gnostics running off and having a secret Eucharist with secret anaphoras. “as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things [i.e. the Eucharist] without him.” (Magnesians IV) We see this clearly defined in Irenaeus with the chalice of Sige. Ignatius’ solution is this:

    As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one. — Magnesians VII

    His purpose is clearly that there would be one Eucharist in good order. Ignatius is therefore setting forward the bishop as the liturgical icon of Christ. He is the arbiter of the Eucharistic meal as Christ was of the last supper.

    Therefore, to see “in personam Christi” as a metaphysically necessary authority in Ignatius is clearly reading later concerns into him.

    As an aside, reading the Fathers is incredibly difficult (and I have not attained perfection in any way, so please correct me [as iron sharpens iron]). There is a always a tendency to read ourselves (and our histories, theologies, philosophies, etc) into them. This must be resisted at all cost. The Fathers must be read on their own terms, letting them express their own theological visions, not as milestones to later periods or doctrines. This is, I think, how we learn to sit at their feet.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      I’m going to try today to read through all that’s happened the last two days, but at the moment, this from Nathaniel caught my eye:

      reading the Fathers is incredibly difficult (and I have not attained perfection in any way, so please correct me [as iron sharpens iron]). There is a always a tendency to read ourselves (and our histories, theologies, philosophies, etc) into them. This must be resisted at all cost. The Fathers must be read on their own terms, letting them express their own theological visions, not as milestones to later periods or doctrines. This is, I think, how we learn to sit at their feet.

      This is sage advice for reading any historical text. And yes, it is very difficult to follow. However, surely it is of supreme importance first to understand what an author meant in his own context before trying to figure out legitimate or illegitimate applications of what he said to later situations. To short-circuit that process would, it seems, be akin to trying to do an allegorical interpretation of Scripture without serious regard for first understanding the literal level. Despite supposedly being an interpretation of the text, the allegory would then actually become detached from the text and function as if it was its own independent text – and that is surely not a good thing.

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